Violence in Sports Tough Call for Courts

Article excerpt

Boxers punch until they draw blood. Football players are called for unnecessary roughness in a rough game. Hockey players race around the rink on razor-sharp blades, slamming opponents into the boards; fighting is as much a part of the sport as the Zamboni.

So where is the line between sport and assault? Is a bench-clearing brawl part of the game or a reason for arrest? Is a late hit a misdemeanor, a felony or, for fans, worth the price of admission?

To be sure, the line is a blurry one. Recently, two minor league hockey players were charged with assault for on-ice incidents. While Jesse Boulerice of the Plymouth Whalers (Ontario Hockey League) and Dean Trboyevich of the Anchorage Aces (Western Hockey League) were barred from their respective teams - Trboyevich for the season - each still might face a trial, fine and jail time.

A judge will decide soon whether to go forward in the case of Boulerice, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect who smacked Andrew Long of the Guelph Storm in the face with his stick during a playoff game last spring. Long suffered a blood spot on his brain, a broken nose and cheekbone and required 20 stitches to close the cut on his face.

"I couldn't stop shaking," Long said. "There was blood everywhere."

Long filed a complaint with police, and Boulerice was charged with assault to do great bodily harm less than murder. However, Boulerice's attorney, James Howarth, is confident the case will be dismissed.

"If what Jesse Boulerice did was criminal, then thousands of `hockey crimes' are committed on a daily basis," Mr. Howarth said from his Detroit office. "Every penalty for slashing, high-sticking or cross-checking must, of necessity, be considered to be at least a felonious assault. When a person decides to play hockey, especially on the level of the OHL, there must be an anticipation that rough play will cross the line and result in penalties. Penalties will result in injuries.

"A person who walks on his or her residential neighborhood street does not expect to be tripped or struck with a stick," Mr. Howarth said in his legal brief. "Hockey players, on the other hand, know with certainty that they will be subjected to those seemingly anti-social intrusions."

Police in Fresno, Calif., will decide whether to present Trboyevich's case, which includes a charge of assault with a deadly weapon, to the district attorney. Trboyevich cross-checked the Fresno Falcons' Jacques Maihot, causing a bench-clearing brawl. Maihot was not seriously injured. Trboyevich was arrested between periods.

"The actions that occurred are not acceptable at any level of hockey," said West Coast League President Mike McCall.

But were the actions criminal? Legal history would say no.

In the past, no matter how brutal the check or the tackle or punch thrown in anger, it is a far reach to back it up in criminal court. While many civil cases have been decided in favor of the injured, there has never been a successful criminal prosecution.

Three times since 1972, a Federal Sports Violence Act has been proposed to Congress, but never enacted, suggesting that not only that state laws do not cover sports violence, but that any attempt to criminalize violence within contact sports is not within the realm of public policy. …